Every season when the Oregon Ducks occupied residency in that same elite neighborhood as Alabama football, something happened to prevent a showdown. That they never played made for a fun debate, fueled by the complete juxtaposition in their styles.
But as the Crimson Tide continued rolling along at peak level after the inaugural College Football Playoff, Oregon began a downturn that landed the Ducks in the position they now occupy. No longer is the discussion how Oregon and Alabama might fare head-to-head, but rather how the Ducks take to Tide influence in their pursuit of rejoining college football’s best.
Mario Cristobal came to Oregon a year ago as part of Willie Taggart’s new-look Ducks staff, leaving behind the offensive line coaching gig at Alabama. An unusual twist of fate — specifically, the Florida State head-coaching job opening for the first time in four decades — led to Cristobal landing the head-coaching job he’s been worthy of for five years since the head-scratching end to his tenure at FIU.
Cristobal led the Panthers to their first (and only) Sun Belt Conference championship in 2010, just four years removed from the program’s only national recognition having come in particularly embarrassing fashion. In 2011, FIU beat Louisville on a prime-time ESPN telecast and won a program record eight games.
A year later, Mario Cristobal was out. Ron Turner was in. Pete Garcia, ladies and gentlemen.
Cristobal’s head-coaching credentials were well established a half-decade ago, but working four seasons alongside college football’s greatest head coach ever should make the new lead Duck even more prepared for this moment.
And for Oregon football, the Saban influence could be the infusion necessary to vault it back to the upper echelon.
The process — words Saban himself uses to vaguely describe the concept on which Alabama football’s built — began at Oregon this the offseason.
“No. 1,” Cristobal began when detailing Saban’s impact on the reshaping of the Ducks. “Before even getting into practice, was that Fourth Quarter Program, which we implemented in our own way out here with (strength and conditioning) coach (Aaron) Feld and his staff.
“I thought (the Fourth Quarter Program) was probably the biggest game-changer, the highest development factor I witnessed in four years there,” he added.
60 Minutes went behind the scenes of Alabama’s Fourth Quarter Program in 2013, Cristobal’s first season on Saban’s staff.
The man overseeing Oregon’s version of the Fourth Quarter Program, Aaron Feld, was also in his first year with the Crimson Tide in 2013. He left the Tuscaloosa nest in 2015, and last year was on staff with another (and most successful) Saban disciple, Georgia’s Kirby Smart.
Execution of Oregon’s take on the Fourth Quarter Program comes with Saban influence, and its very concept takes its name from an oft-repeated Saban philosophy: a championship team plays its best in the fourth quarter.
That comes not only from superior strength-and-conditioning training in the offseason, but from depth.
Of the many superlatives that can be applied to Alabama’s excellence, the Crimson Tide’s depth is second-to-none. Much of that comes from recruiting, and there aren’t many programs that attract the caliber of talent that rolls into Tuscaloosa every February.
Attracting raw talent is one thing. Losing several blue-chip linebackers to injury and playing a second-string quarterback in the National Championship Game, and still finishing No. 1, requires development of that talent.
Mario Cristobal said he aimed to similarly prepare the roster at Oregon during the Ducks’ recently completed spring practices.
“The second part (Cristobal adapted from Saban) was having the numbers you have when you’re going into camp — you never want to compromise reps, you want to make sure everybody’s developing,” Cristobal said. “What we did was actually conduct two different practices on two different field whenever it came to the team slash unit periods of practice, meaning your blitz periods; your team run and play-action periods; your team pass periods; your move-the-field periods.
“What happens is your fourth-team guys are getting the exact same reps and the exact same plays as your first-team guys,” he explained. “So development there has increased, I’d say exponentially, because no one suffers a compromise in their production.”
The recruiting angle certainly bolsters Saban and Co. in their depth-building efforts, but Oregon’s first recruiting cycle with Mario Cristobal at the helm provided a solid start. The Ducks signed the No. 16-ranked class for 2018, up from No. 27 two years ago.
Continued success on the recruiting trail will bring championship-caliber talent into a system the sport’s best fine-tuned for success.
Maybe — just maybe — the end result will be that Alabama-Oregon game so many of us wanted in the previous half-decade.